Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety involves the feelings of extreme self-consciousness in a social context. It can encompass the fear of being judged by other people, as well as the the fear of behaving improperly and embarrassing oneself in front of others. Individuals diagnosed with social anxiety often avoid social situations, which can be detrimental to areas of healthy functioning and living (The Canadian Mental Health Association, 2012). Anxiety Canada (2007) added that individuals with social anxiety have anticipatory anxiety about upcoming social situations, and tend to avoid these types of situations when possible.

Physical symptoms that are common to social anxiety include:
  • blushing
  • sweating
  • increased heart rate
  • tremors
  • dry mouth
  • fear of being unable to track a conversation

The DSM IV-TR describes social anxiety as: "A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing." (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The individual often realizes that these fears are unreasonable but is unable to overcome them. It is often the case that the distress felt by upcoming social situations or performances interferes with the individual's daily routine, occupational functioning, or social activities and relationships.

It has been found that approximately one third of individuals who are dependent on marijuana also have had experience with social anxiety (Agosti, Nunes & Levin 2002; as cited in: Buckner, Heimberg, Matthews & Silgado, 2011). In the study conducted by Buckner et al. (2011), the dependence on cannabis in social situations was addressed. Information was gathered to determine whether socially anxious individuals used marijuana to help them deal with social situations and whether or not they avoided social situations where marijuana was not being used. Two hundred and fifty two psychology students were asked to complete a variety of questionnaires related to their use of cannabis, such as how often they used and in what types of situations (i.e., alone, with friends, in social settings etc...). The results showed that individuals who were rated as having a higher level of social anxiety used cannabis as a way to cope with more social situations and were found to avoid situations where marijuana was unavailable. These results could imply that marijuana smokers rely on the drug to help them cope, which can interfere with learning new ways to manage social situations. Buckner et al. (2011) also suggested that these higher level anxiety drug users have a strong belief that they need marijuana in order to function properly in social situations. This could have a negative effect on these individuals because they are likely to keep smoking or using marijuana despite the possible undesirable consequences (strain on relationships, financial situations, etc...).

Buckner and Schmidt (2009) studied the relationship between social anxiety disorder (SAD) and problematic marijuana use in one hundred and seven participants. Their investigation implicated social anxiety disorder as the only disorder notably correlated with problems with marijuana use in the past 3 months. Relative to people without SAD, participants with SAD had a greater probability of having certain expectations of how marijuana would affect them. These included expecting that marijuana would induce cognitive and/or behavioural deterioration and have a generally negative impact. The authors explained these findings by suggesting that individuals with SAD may want marijuana to decrease their capabilities in thinking and behaviour because a) it would aid in dampening anxious, racing thought patterns b) it could alter their personality such that they would have less chance of being judged negatively and c) it could help them dissociate from real contexts, making them less likely to induce anxious reactions (Buckner & Schmidt, 2009). Another interpretation of these findings was that individuals with SAD may have such effect expectancies to self-handicap. That is, they engage in marijuana use with the assumption that any inappropriate behaviour they perform will be interpreted as due to the effects of the marijuana rather than flawed traits in the person (Buckner & Schmidt, 2009).

Buckner, Mallott, Schmidt, and Taylor (2006) examined the effect of peer influence on the connection between social anxiety disorder and cannabis use disorder. The researchers assessed lifetime symptomatology of social anxiety and cannabis use disorder through a diagnostic interview and also acquired data on participants' friends' substance use. They found that social anxiety disorder symptoms were highly associated with cannabis use disorder symptoms and that peer cannabis use presented a serious risk for cannabis use disorder symptoms in participants with many signs of social anxiety. This relationship was especially evident in women, and the authors speculated that females who are socially anxious may try to better their relationships by bonding through cannabis use (Buckner et al., 2006).

In their investigation of one hundred and fifty nine young adults, Buckner, Bonn-Miller, Zvolensky, and Schmidt (2007) found that having social anxiety was correlated with higher amounts of marijuana use problems (i.e. relationship difficulties, missing days of work or school, financial problems, decreased productivity, and feeling bad about using). However, having social anxiety was not correlated with using marijuana more often. As well, having social anxiety was highly related to using marijuana to cope (i.e. regulate negative affect) and conform. In explaining their finding that social anxiety was not related to higher frequency of marijuana use, the authors suggested that individuals with social anxiety may only use in specific circumstances (i.e. to manage their anxious symptoms and avoid social disapproval). The authors also hypothesized that individuals with social anxiety may use marijuana to lessen anxiety prior to attending a social situation, but then they may avoid the situation altogether because they could be judged by others for being under the influence (Buckner et al., 2007). As well, it is possible that if socially anxious individuals use marijuana to cope with negative affect, they may never learn to cope in other ways, which could lead to problems in their social and occupational functioning (Buckner et al., 2007).